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Writing and Pitching Your Screenplay

You can't make a great movie without a great script.

Story ideas are all around. How do you plan on getting a great script to film?

I'll show you how to properly format your script to industry standards if you are going to write your own script.

A different route is to acquire a story such as in a published book and turn it into a script. You can also hire an experienced writer and get a head start by taking advantage of their talent and experience. Always remember that filmmaking is a collaborative art and the more smart people you can get involved the smarter you will look.

Finally, you need to learn the art of pitching your project. Whether you are looking for financing or crew or actors you will need to be able to create a sense of excitement about what you are about to create.

Especially as a beginning filmmaker you want to get all the help you can create a great script. And remember that your resources will be limited so make sure you have a script that will be really easy to film. Keep locations, special effects and characters to a minimum.

Find a Writer

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Try placing an ad for writers. In particular there are Hollywood trade publications For example The Hollywood Reporter and Backstage West may help you connect with a writer. Script Magazine, Creative Screenwriting and www.writerswrite.com are also great resources for information and ideas on screenplay writing as well as finding writers.

Watch for writing seminars advertised in these publications as well as in The Hollywood Reporter. Talk to attendees who will probably be thrilled to let you see what they are working on and entertain an offer from you to write your story. Additional resources are www.Storylink.com, www.scriptwritersnetwork.org and www.inktip.com.

Ask friends if they know any writers as well as if they have a story idea they would love to have you film. The more you spread the word the sooner you will start getting script submissions.

Talent agencies are another place to look but you need to be realistic about your budget. Major, and even minor, agencies are looking for big projects with multi-million dollar budgets. Your beginning, small project isn't going to get much attention from them.

Option A Book

The Filmmaker's Handbook is the "bible" to creating and distributing your film. The one essential book every filmmaker needs to own.

A number of filmmakers make money by optioning a novel and creating enough excitement about the project that they are able to sell the option for a considerable profit. This technique is a business by itself.

An option is a contract giving you exclusive rights to make a film of the novel for a limited amount of time. Options are typically a few months to a few years. If you make the film the author will get some additional money as agreed to in the contract. If you don't make a film you are out the money you paid for the option.

Thousands and thousands of books are published every year. Short stories are often a better choice for an easy first film. If you can find the author of a book that was published a few years ago and not optioned it may be very easy and inexpensive to make a deal. Most writers will be flattered and excited that someone cares about their story.

It is common to get an option for $1 in these situations with a purchase price for the story of 10% to 20% of the budget of the film once it is completed.

If none of this works you can always have a go at writing your own script.

How a Screenplay Is Structured

All great stories follow a structural format that isn't hard to learn and once you know it you will easily spot it every time you watch a movie. The most common way of describing it is The Three Act Structure. Another way to describe it that is a bit more complex and takes into account psychological factors is call The Hero's Journey and was popularized by the author Joseph Campbell.

Here is how the Three Act Structure works:

Act One

In Act One you present the time and place of your story as well as the characters. By the end of

Act One you have met the main character, the "protagonist" or sometime called the "hero", who experiences an "inciting incident" which will force them to have to try to resolve some conflict.

The very beginning of Act One should be a compelling scene that grabs the attention of the audience and makes them want to see what will come next. This compelling scene often takes the form of a prologue telling the audience about some event in the past that created the present situation.

Act Two

By the end of Act One or early in Act Two the story presents the "antagonist", enemy or villain, who is going to make it difficult for the protagonist to solve their problem.

Note that the antagonist could be a group of people as well as one person, or an animal, or anything else that the audience can relate to and has the ability to take action. The protagonist could also be other than a single person, or possibly even a force of nature like a volcano.

The protagonist faces ever more challenging tasks trying to solve the problem. Usually halfway through Act Two the story introduces an additional wrinkle, perhaps the protagonist's buddy turns out to be working for the enemy, that make's the problem a lot harder.

Act Three

Act Three is where the struggles of the protagonist to resolve the conflict come to a climax. The hero finally faces down the villain in do-or-die combat. Everything is resolved in a way that is satisfying to the audience and the premise of the story, the basic truth, is proven.

The very end of Act Three may take the form of an epilog where we learn how everything turned out for everyone involved and any loose ends are tied up.

Thoughts On The Three Act Structure

Conflict is what makes a story work. Make sure your story has serious conflict. Minor misunderstandings don't qualify. The conflict should be a life-threatening, or at least life-changing possibility. The conflict should also be interesting enough that the antagonist must solve some mysteries and learn things along the way to a solution.

The story should be believable. The conflict needs to get resolved by a maximum effort on the part of the antagonist, not by luck or happenstance. The story should be original and unlike anything the audience has seen before.

Shoot for the most "high-concept" idea possible. An idea that is possible but very out of the ordinary.

Your characters should be interesting. Think of your friends and family that you like to spend time with, or those that are the most annoying. Pattern your characters after them. Keep them real but still unusual like a nice neighbor who is really a serial killer or the grandmother who is a former secret agent.

Writing the Screenplay

There are a number of software programs designed specifically to help writing screenplays. Several attempt to help you craft the story and characters. Among the best and most useful are:

Save the Cat Work with "index cards" and various brainstorming tools to create a strong story.

Power Structure Asks questions and brainstorms with you to develop a strong structure for your story.

Truby's Blockbuster Lets you compare and contrast your story with actual example of many of the best films of all time. You also get Truby's Story Structure Course, one of the best ways to learn story structure. Add-ons are offered for many genres.

Dramatica Pro Makes it fun to examine your story from every angle with lots of examples and guidance.

Story View Uses lots of charts, cards and color coding to create a virtual map of your story that you can study and refine.

Among the programs that help create the properly formatted script the most popular is Final Draft. You could potentially use Word or another word processor but Final Draft makes it so easy to create the proper format and it's not expensive if your are serious about writing your own stories.

VERY IMPORTANT Do not start formatting your script in a program like Final Draft until you have completely worked out your entire story to the finest detail. It is a cliche in Hollywood of the first time screenplay writer who starts formatting his 120 page script but by page 40, or perhaps 60, runs into detail problems and the script is never finished.

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A common way to work out the details and scenes of a story is to write each scene on a 3" by 5" index card and arrange them on a table or cork board. That allows an easy way to move things around. A word processor works just about as well if the scenes are each written into a paragraph.

If you story if fully thought out, written into a full treatment, then converted into an outline of 40 to 60 scenes the final script can be formatted in as little as 2 weeks. That final stage only involves working out dialog and formatting the whole thing to the proper standard.

Don't get discourage, spend some time every day working on your story, and keep writing and rewriting until everything works.

Register With The Writer's Guild

Once you story is finished and you are satisfied you can register it with the Writer's Guild of America (www.wgaregistry.org), or even copyright it with the Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). This step will give you dated proof of when you created your story and that it is your original intellectual property.

Getting Your Movie Made

You may be tempted to try to sell your movie idea to a studio. Understand that studios are working on projects years or decades into the future and always work with known writers on their projects. The odds of convincing a Hollywood studio to make your first-time effort are nearly non-existent.

A second possibility is to find a distributor who will agree to distribute your film once it is completed. Again distributors almost always work with established producers, unless you have a completed film to show them you are almost guaranteed no interest. If you can get a distribution agreement you will find it a bit easier to get financing.

The next and most likely option is to make the movie yourself.

Learn to Pitch

Whatever route you take to getting your film made you will need to learn how to pitch. Pitching is simply the act of selling the idea of your story. Figure out what is fun and exciting and could be profitable about your story and convince yourself that the world is just waiting for it. Now go out with that attitude pitch it to anyone who will listen.

Never give up and eventually you will find the money, talented people to help and your film will get made.


Writing and Pitching

 

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